This unit of study is designed to help students with the difficult and exhilarating work of learning to write well within an expository structure. At the start of this unit, we point out to writers that they could conceivably write about a topic—say a visit to Grandma's—as a narrative, retelling it chronologically, or as a non-narrative, or essay, in which case they'd need to advance a certain idea ("Visits to Grandma's farm feel like time travel," for example). For some students, the fact that they can write about personal topics in a genre other than a personal narrative will be a new realization. The terms narrative and non-narrative or essay refer to structure and genre, not to content. In this unit, each child will write a personal essay in which she advances a theme of personal significance, arguing, for example, "It's hard being an only child," or claiming, "My dog is my best friend."
A Rationale for Teaching Traditional Essay Structure
Before describing the sequence of this unit, I want to share my rationale for teaching students to write fairly traditional thesis-driven essays. I know that some of the nation's writing process advocates will feel as if this unit of study doesn't follow the tenets of that school of thought. I can hear these critics say, "Why would we ask students to write thesis driven essays when essayists approach essays as journeys of thought, as wandering ruminations? Why would we teach kids to do a kind of writing that we don't do and that writers in the world don't do?" I've posed similar challenges in my day, and so I respect these questions.
These are my reasons for teaching children to write traditional thesis-driven essays. First, although I do want children to write like writers all over the world write, this does not mean that everything I ask a child to try will be something that Wadsworth or E.B White or Thoreau would have done. If we simply show children rich, complex finished publications and say, "Have at it! Write like this!" I agree that some children will progress with remarkable success through a series of approximations. But because I try to truly hold myself accountable to being sure that all children truly do make palpable, dramatic progress in their abilities to write well, I think it is important to admit that some children profit from more scaffolding and support. I believe that it is the teacher's job to reduce some of the complexity of finished essays, to highlight the most essential moves an essayist must make, and to show all children that these moves are within their reach. We ask beginning readers to point underneath words as they read, and we later tell them that actually, pointing under the words is not necessary or even forever helpful. In the same way, I think we can teach children to write explicit thesis statements and topic sentences and later tell them that actually, essayists often write towards main ideas that are implied but not explicitly stated, and that actually, essayists often advance one idea for a time, then turn a corner and advance a second idea, creating a text that takes readers on a journey of thought. Although this book teaches children to write within a traditional thesis-driven essay structure, the final book in the series shows children that actually, the structure they learn in this unit is not the only way to structure an essay and that they can in the end, use this structure in flexible ways.
Another reason for teaching children to write traditional thesisdriven essays is that in fact, I do think this is a structure that real-world writers rely upon often. Most of the chapters in my professional books pose an idea, and then elaborate upon that idea in parallel categories, each introduced by a sub-head. Many of my speeches, grant applications, persuasive letters and editorials all rely upon this fundamental structure.
Then, too, I teach this to children because I think the unit can help teachers as well. Classroom charts and staff development workshops, too, often rely upon structure. Some educators have never been explicitly taught that in a strong presentation, information is organized within parallel categories—a classroom chart entitled, say, Revision Strategies should not include materials or qualities of good writing. Then, too, I think that when children learn that they can, if they so choose, think and write according to what I refer to as a "boxes and bullets" format, this helps them construct a mental model comprised of main ideas and support information as they read expository texts and as they take notes on books and class lectures. Finally, I know that in middle school and high school and on standardized tests, this is the form of writing that children will rely upon most. They will need to write in this form with speed and finesse while also carrying a heavy cargo of disciplinary ideas and information. In most secondary schools, students receive very little introduction in this challenging kind of writing before they are assigned to write an expository essay on books they can barely read. Secondary school teachers, often responsible for well over a hundred students, assign and grade this work but rarely teach it.
Lastly, the reason that I include a unit on the thesis-driven essay (and a subsequent one on writing literary essays) is that I believe children benefit from teachers working together to create a shared curriculum that spirals through the grades, and I am convinced that the only way to take staff development to scale is to adopt a curriculum that incorporates aspects of teaching writing that are priorities to a variety of educators who approach the teaching of writing from a variety of perspectives.
An Overview of Breathing Life into Essays
A teacher could choose to hurry kids through this unit, showing them how to whip up modest yet well-structured and competent little essays. However, I argue that there are many reasons to take one's time instead, harvesting all the learning opportunities found along the way. If we help children write rough drafts and do lots of revision with the goal of learning as much as possible about logical thought, this unit can have enormous payoffs. Then, after helping kids spend a month writing one essay, we can show students they also have the option of churning out a quick essay in a day—or even in fifteen minutes! This, of course, becomes a form of test-preparation.
As with any unit of study in a writing workshop, it is important to begin by helping children develop a repertoire of strategies for collecting entries-this time, entries that can grow into essays. It's important to teach students that their lives are provocative. Writers observe things in the world, recording what we see, and then we shift and write, "The thought I have about this is
" or "This makes me realize
" When teaching children to grow essays out of everyday observations, we are really teaching them to free write, and the goal is to help them realize the value of writing at length without a preconceived content, trusting that ideas will surface as they go along. Children also learn the power of imagining themselves in an evocative place and generating ideas in response to what they "see."
During this early phase of the unit, I also teach children that they can reread entries they collected earlier in the year during narrative units of study and use those entries as starting points, perhaps again beginning, "The idea I have about this is
" or "The thing that surprises me about this is
" A child might jot down a topic, hobby, or issue that he cares about, then collect ideas about that big subject and write at length about one of those ideas. Children should become accustomed to selecting the strategy that works best for them on any given occasion. That is, the strategy the teacher introduces in a minilesson on a particular day is not that day's assignment but is one of many in a growing repertoire of strategies that writers draw on as needed.
Essayists need tools to push past their first thoughts, and many find it helps to use thought-prompts to prime the pump of their thoughts. "The surprising thing about this is
" an essayist might write in her notebook before spinning out a brand new thought in letters that scrawl down the page. That is, once a child records an idea, the child will benefit from having strategies to elaborate upon that idea. Using prompts such as, "to add on
," "this makes me realize
," "the surprising things about this is
," "on the other hand
" allows children to extend their first ideas and to use writing as a way of thinking. They find that new ideas come out of their pencils, ideas they never even knew they had.
After collecting possible seed ideas, drawing on what they already know about rereading notebooks looking for seeds, young essayists select one idea. In the earlier, narrative units of study, they selected a seed story; this time they will select a seed idea. Writers then revise that idea until they've made a provocative, clear, compelling claim—or thesis statement.
Once students have selected and articulated an idea ("The Dominican Republic feels like home to me," for example), we teach them to elaborate on that idea by generating subordinate ideas ("The Dominican Republic feels like home because my childhood memories are there," and "The Dominican Republic feels like home because my extended family is there," and so forth). The easiest way to support most claims is to provide a few parallel reasons for that claim; writers can restate the claim each time and add the transitional word because followed by a reason. There are other ways to support a claim (or thesis), and a teacher may or may not teach those alternatives.
Usually children write support ideas through a series of parallel statements. The child elaborated on the thesis, "It's hard being an only child," by saying, "Your parents shower you with too much attention; your parents have too many of their hopes attached to you; and you can be very lonely."
During this planning stage, students can explore their subordinate ideas and decide what they really want to say. In the end, we hope each child has a main idea (a claim or a thesis) and several parallel supporting ideas. I sometimes refer to the main idea and supporting statements as "boxes and bullets." I have found it helps if children take their thesis and record it on the outside of one folder, then make internal folders for each of their bullets (these become topic sentences for their body paragraphs).
When it is time for children to collect materials to support their topic sentences, we teach them that they can first collect stories that illustrate their ideas. It is also important to teach children to angle these stories so they support the idea the writer wants to advance, and for them to learn to "unpack" those stories, just as a teacher debriefs after a demonstration in a minilesson.
Writers can also collect lists to support their topic sentences. We show children how statistics, observations, citations, quotations, and so forth can enrich their work. These bits are collected not in a writer's notebook but on separate bits of paper and filed in the appropriate topic-sentence folder.
It is important to help writers select compelling evidence from the material they collect in these folders, and to help them ensure that the evidence closely supports their claim. We teach them to look carefully from the claim to the evidence and back again because often the two aren't as congruent as they appear at first glance. Eventually we teach writers to sort through the materials in each folder, writing well-structured paragraphs.
Once writers have selected the most powerful and pertinent support material for each of their topic sentences, they staple or tape or recopy this information into a paragraph or two that supports each topic sentence, and in this manner construct the rough draft of an essay. Special lessons on transitions, introductions, and conclusions are important here.